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Referee Shortages Loom as Sports Resume

11 Sep, 2020

By: Michael Popke

One thing that hasn’t changed over the last six months is a shortage of referees. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

In late May, almost 20,000 sports officials participated in a Referee magazine survey that gauged their readiness to return to work in the COVID-19 era — weighing in on everything from safety and liability to social distancing. Nearly one-third of respondents indicated they would not be comfortable taking the field or court if youth and high school sports resumed “today.”

As survey officials noted at the time, that number “could have implications for staffing games as sports resume, especially in areas or sports facing pre-existing shortages of officials.”

Now, more than three months later, that speculation has become reality.

“Even in the best of times, it can be a challenge for high school sports to attract and retain officials. Add in the global pandemic and accompanying disruptions, and you have the potential for a very difficult situation when sports ultimately do resume,” notes AthleticBusiness.com, citing many communities in California where sports have been pushed back to 2021. “That calls for an extremely busy spring sports calendar, one that could exacerbate a problem that already exists locally, as well as throughout the country: a lack of sports officials.”

Just ask Bob Rollins, president of the Los Padres Football Officials Association in Arroyo Grande, Calif., where football is tentatively scheduled to return in January. “One of the things that might happen is we’ll have to tell a school we can’t assign officials to their game,” Rollins told the Santa Maria Times. “It’s highly unlikely that will happen, but it’s a possibility.”

“High school football plays once a week, but you also have youth football that plays on Saturdays, and there will be all these other sports that play multiple times a week,” addedMike Ostini, the association’s game assigner.

Many sports officials work multiple sports at multiple levels, based on seasons. Complicating matters is that games are still staffed by plenty of sports officials in their late 50s or older, and they were the ones who indicated the most concern about returning to action in the Referee survey. Statistically, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If men and women who are actively officiating … and have had a good 20 to 35 years of successful high school officiating in, many of them — probably at the direction of their spouses — are going to step aside,” Jim Jorgensen, a former official who now schedules referees for eight sports at 105 high schools in Northern California, told The Davis Enterprise. “We’re fearful of that. It’s not worth the risk.”

In Florida, Dave Raub, volleyball commissioner of the Mid-Coast Officials Association, is optimistic that his organization will have enough people to staff high school games, which were scheduled to begin in early September. “We have a lot of older people, and it’s very difficult to get officials,” he told FloridaToday.com, adding that he needs 24 to 26 officials to cover the schedule in his jurisdiction; he had 34 on his roster at the time. “I do have officials who have bowed out.”  

Officials who haven’t bowed out are adjusting on the fly to changing circumstances. A group of five football officials from Michigan, where high school football has been delayed by the Michigan High School Athletic Association, crossed the border into Ohio to work a late-August Friday night game at Stryker High School.

“I back the MHSAA 100% in the decisions they’ve made,” Bob Baxter, one of the border-crossing officials told NBC-TV affiliate WILX. “We’re not going to Ohio because we’re upset with the MHSAA. We totally agree with the decision. They made the best decision that they had to for what’s going on right now. … We’re all in this together, and hopefully, football will be able to go in the spring.

The Texas Association of Sports Officials (TASO) is allowing for greater flexibility this fall, too. Michael Fitch, the organization’s executive director, told The Dallas Morning Newsthat he’s warned local chapters to prepare for smaller officiating crews and that no game assignment will be mandatory for officials who feel uncomfortable.

“Each independent contractor can opt out no matter what, adding another variable to crew numbers,” the paper reports. “If necessary, officials from one area could be used in another to help fill a deficit. And if all that becomes difficult, TASO could ask the [state’s University Interscholastic League] and the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools to move some Friday games to Thursday and Saturday.”

Fitch also recommends that pregame conferences between coaches take place outside on the field instead of indoors and that officials’ dressing rooms should be cleaned and sanitized before their arrival. As an extra precaution, he suggests referees arrive at games already in uniform.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Sports Officials, which publishes Referee magazine, has provided a 13-point plan for “getting back to officiating sensibly.”It includes cautiously adjusting rules of the games when necessary, paying increased attention to personal hygiene, wearing a face mask and getting vaccinated when a vaccine “becomes easily or widely available.”

And lest you think this is a problem confined within the borders of the U.S., our neighbors to the north are combatting it as well. In fact, Sport Manitoba is launching a new campaign to support officials at every level. The campaign, #NoRefNoGame, was started after an increase of abuse directed at officials, according to Sport Manitoba.

"#NoRefNoGame is a reminder that without referees, officials, and umpires, there would be no games," the organization said in a news release.

The campaign is also designed to generate awareness, support, and create change on how referees and officials are treated.

“It is so important that the proper treatment of officials is brought to light in the sport community," said Jeff Hnatiuk, the president and CEO of Sport Manitoba. "They are dedicated, passionate individuals who make games and competition possible for all of us to enjoy. Sport Manitoba is committed along with True Sport and the Provincial Sport Organizations to helping create an environment where all officials are treated with respect and people feel safe and welcome to pursue opportunities in officiating.”

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